AAAS Showcases Green Innovation and Education in the Shadow of the Washington Monument

AAAS showcased its commitment to green education at the 2010 National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as thousands of attendees celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

AAAS was part of two creative programs to encourage young scientists: Students in Spark Club, AAAS’s after-school curriculum for 6th-8th graders, offered green energy demonstrations focused on wind turbines and solar power systems. And AAAS coordinated the judging for the EPA’s P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability.

For Bob Hirshon, senior project director for AAAS Education and Human Resources, bringing Spark Club participants from Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., to the Expo highlighted the importance of teaching energy and sustainability science to students.

Wave of the future. Orquidea Aleman (left) and her sister Luisa Aleman demonstrate the wind turbine they built for AAAS's Spark Club program at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C.

“Exposing middle-school students to the science behind solar and wind energy is not only a great method for teaching physics and engineering, it also gets them thinking about using technology to benefit society and the environment,” said Hirshon.

Edward Derrick, director for the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program, said that working with the EPA to evaluate green energy technologies fits with AAAS’s mission to support science and engineering for the benefit of society.

“We’re proud to help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency judge the program which features the seeds for technologies that could help society meet its energy needs while achieving its social and environmental goals,” said Derrick.

The 2010 National Sustainable Design Expo was co-sponsored by the EPA and AIChE, a professional community of chemical engineers. It featured exhibits from nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies whose innovative technologies are designed to advance economic growth while reducing environmental impact.

Held 24-25 April, the Expo also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the EPA with exhibits demonstrating environmental crime scene forensics, hybrid automotive technology, and habitat loss related to climate change, along with backyard composting demonstrations and a Chesapeake Bay water model.

Launched earlier this year, Spark Club is one of two out-of-school components of a larger initiative called Global Education for Tomorrow in Science, Engineering and Technology, or GET SET. The initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program and includes a rigorous physics and engineering middle school science curricula, along with summer programs and after-school activities such as Spark Club.

Currently underway in seven Washington, D.C., schools, Spark Club also provides a college student or post-doc mentor to help the students with activities and experiments, tell them about science careers, and answer science questions. The program is part of an effort to improve understanding of physics and engineering among students in the nation’s capital.

Lorena Alfaro, a 7th grade Spark Club student at Sacred Heart School, said that the engineering experiments are “really interesting and show that while sometimes problems may seem hard, if you try a little harder, you can find the answer.” She also credited the program with helping her “develop a creative mind for learning and reading directions carefully.”

Hirshon said that the culmination of Spark Club, which meets three days a week for two hours, is a Family Energy Expo. There, the students teach their parents, siblings and friends what they’ve learned about sustainable energy production, using songs, poems, games, and demonstrations.

“Spark Club gives the kids a chance to take what they learned in the classroom and see how that knowledge can help solve real-world problems, like making electricity without generating greenhouse gases,” said Hirshon, who wrote the Spark Club curriculum. “We hope they also learn that science and technology can be a blast.”

Michael Kelley, the science teacher at Sacred Heart School, said that English is a second language for most of his students. While he was initially concerned that the reading required in Spark Club would be discouraging to his students, he found just the opposite.

“In our club, we have noticed that even students struggling with literacy are having success,” he said. “The students get very anxious and excited about reaching the endpoint when building a kit, and they are willing to read and re-read each word of the directions alone and to each other in order to get there. As a result, what seemed to be a weakness in the program has become a strength.”

Kelley said that his next goal is to increase the amount of boys in the program, “from zero to some.” He explained that when the students “hit a wall of difficulty, the boys quit while the girls worked through the materials and persevered.”

Lisa Rogers, whose daughter, Krysten, is in Spark Club, said that the program is the first time her daughter has been exposed to “real science.”

“Krysten has always been into building things and taking them apart,” she said. “It’s great to hear her talk about school like she does. That’s a big deal for a parent.”

Kelley said he brought his students to the Expo in part to help them develop strong communication skills as they explain Spark Club to other attendees. But just as important, he said, is the ability for his students to see the green innovation projects and excitement from other young scientists, especially the P3 competition participants.

The People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition is a grant program in which teams of undergraduate and graduate students design solutions to sustainability challenges—developing alternative energy; increasing access to clean water resources; reducing energy consumption; and improving distribution of agriculture and food.

In the first round, the student teams compete for $10,000 in EPA grants to research and develop their proposals during the academic year. The teams then come to Washington, D.C., to display their projects and compete for up to $75,000 to further develop and implement the technologies in the field. This year, the EPA selected 14 projects to receive second-round funding, totaling $1 million in grant money.

To help the EPA select the projects to receive $10,000 grants, Derrick, along with Amy Fuller, program associate in the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Sustainability, assembled a panel of 15 judges from the scientific community. After the judges evaluated written materials and interviewed the teams, they ranked the projects and Derrick presented the results to the EPA.

Derrick said that among the factors the EPA asked judges to evaluate were a project’s ability to be “translated into a sustainably based business or process that is widely implemented as well as its ability to meet the EPA goals of promoting people, prosperity, and the planet.”

The projects evaluated by the AAAS-selected judges represented a diverse set of green technologies. Presentations included: housing units made out of retired shipping containers that can withstand hurricanes; an anaerobic digester for dairy farms that turns cow manure into biogas; an energy generator for rural Kenya that can run on locally grown crops; and a Frensel lens, a special type of magnifying glass, that can turn saline or brackish water into drinking water.

EPA Grant Winners. Cornell University's AguaClara program with their chemical dose-controller, which is used to purify drinking water. Pictured left to right: Karen Swetland, Dale Johnson, Harrison Tse-shuan Ko, Akta Patel, Kayti Curtis, Monroe Weber-Shirk (advisor).

One of this year’s grant winners was a team of students from Cornell University’s AguaClara program; they designed a chemical dose-controller that releases aluminum sulfate, a coagulant to remove suspended contaminants from drinking water.

The dose-controller uses a float valve, lever, float, and orifices along with clever engineering to allow the plant operator to set the desired aluminum sulfate dose using an adjustable slide. The dose controller requires no electricity and automatically adjusts the release of aluminum sulfate as the flow rate through the water treatment plant is varied.

Monroe Weber-Shirk, director of AguaClara, said that the AguaClara team created an online design tool that requires only five minutes to produce customized designs of municipal drinking water treatment plants that operate without electricity. The designs are built by engineering firms and then “it’s up to the towns to operate and maintain them.”

“The project is important because it not only provides safe drinking water, it also allows towns to take ownership of their water,” he said, adding that five AguaClara municipal water treatment plants are serving 15,000 people in Honduras. “It’s empowering to communities to finally have access to a technology that is resilient.”

Also displaying at the Expo were several teams awarded $75,000 to further develop their green technology. These programs were awarded a $10,000 P3 grant in a prior year.

One team from the University of California, Davis, which received its first EPA P3 award in 2008, developed a technology that turns sludge from wastewater into biodegradable plastic.

John Bissell, a former undergraduate at UC-Davis, explained that his team’s technology ferments carbon-rich raw sludge— separated from wastewater at water treatment facilities—which produces fatty acids that can be fed to a specially formulated “cocktail of bacteria.” The byproduct of the bacteria is polyhydroxyalkanoates, or biodegradable plastic, that can be made into water bottles, electronics, and automotive parts.

Bissell along with several of his University of California, Davis, colleagues turned their project into the core of a recently launched business named Micromidas, which has partnerships with several water treatment facilities around the world.

Cynthia Nolt-Helms, P3 program director, said that the competition trains the next generation of environmental leaders who will bring an awareness of the concepts of sustainability into their future careers, even as the driver toward sustainable innovations.

“The problems facing the planet need a diversity of creative solutions,” said Nolt-Helms. “The P3 program is one way that EPA can foster the creativity and innovation of people across the country to develop solutions to protect public health and the environment.”